My favorite time of year in Texas is fall. The cooler weather is a welcome reprieve from the heat of a Texas summer, and fall’s arrival signals the start of the State Fair of Texas. The state fair is a grand display of all things Texas – deep fried treats, cooking competitions and carnival rides. (Even during the pandemic this year, we had a “drive-thru state fair” for those of us looking for our annual fix.) We also have rodeo shows where cowboys and cowgirls are challenged to hold onto bucking horses for dear life, wrestle steers to the ground and ride bulls. In some ways, executive directors may feel like they are in their own rodeo, trying to work with boards that seem like bucking broncos with their own ideas about the way forward. Thankfully, we are not in a rodeo, but we do have some helpful tips to cultivate a championship board.
Just as rodeo culture is shared by all who participate in it, from the cowboys and rodeo clowns to the announcers and audience, setting the right tone from the beginning ensures the culture shared by staff and clients also is shared by your board. Organizations can successfully engage their boards by creating a culture of shared purpose; setting clear expectations; ensuring diversity of thought and enforcing their values. To do this, they use a few powerful tools, which we’ve outlined below. (We have included our packet of helpful checklists and templates that support championship board development.)
It is crucial for nonprofit boards to recruit members that come from various backgrounds and reflect the diversity of the community they represent. To evaluate the diversity of your board, consider conducting a board inventory (see template) before starting the recruitment process. It will help you pinpoint exactly who is needed. Once you have a solid idea of your ideal candidate’s experience and background, you want to find the best fit by sharing a job description (see template) widely with board members, stakeholders and friends of the organization. Just like dating – your friends are the best sources of potential matches. The larger the pool of prospects, the more likely you will find the ideal candidate. The more specific you are (e.g., we need a mid-career doctor with a history of serving diverse patients), the more likely you are to get specific referrals.
Training & Development
Setting a foundation from the start of a relationship with new board members is key. Many boards work with executive directors to adopt a board contract (see checklist) that outlines the expectations of board members and the organization. We also encourage an onboarding process that includes learning about the organization through trainings, tours and a formal board orientation. Many nonprofits also have a board manual or online board portal (see checklist) to help board members understand the organization and find necessary paperwork all in one place.
As we often quip during our board trainings, great board members are great, not because of what they do during board meetings, but by what they do between board meetings. This greatness can be spurred by meaningful board engagement opportunities. This not only includes productive board meetings, but also annual retreats to connect board members to each other and board experiences (see template) that bond board members to the mission. We also conclude every retreat with a one-year action plan that includes key agreements created in the meeting, so next steps are clear.
The governance committee helps ensure that the board responsibly guides the organization by evaluating the board’s collective performance (see template) annually on areas like the degree to which members are prepared, informed and engaged. They also conduct an annual CEO/Executive Director evaluation. The assessment is a two-way street – the board also provides feedback on whether it has been appropriately informed by the CEO about its programs, finances and operations. Boards can also hold themselves accountable for productivity with a simple eight-question meeting evaluation (see template) to encourage positive behaviors. There is also a real benefit in conducting confidential exit interviews with exiting board members to get feedback on strengths as well as areas of future improvement.
Creating a championship board doesn’t have to be a rough ride. By taking a few intentional steps, you can ensure that your board is strong and productive. As you make plans for your board, we hope you’ll use these tools and share how they and other strategies have been successful for your organization. If we can help you with these efforts going into 2021, please do not hesitate to contact us with questions.